June 2010

Making a difference, one pair of shoes at a time

The "Steps for Hope" team: Todd Carter, Ed Fort, and Randy Lorenz. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Comfort.)

By Todd Carter

Piles of crumbled concrete and leveled buildings. Mounds of debris and the bodies of victims. Crowds of desperate people searching for loved ones. Lines of thirsty people waiting for water. Make-shift tents and shelters full of people as far as the eye can see.  Cries of despair, agony, and heartache.

As we sat comfortably on our couches, Americans saw image after horrible image displayed on our television sets following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. We cried as we watched the days of fear, panic, and mourning that followed. Of course, those images on our screens could never capture the distinct and oppressive smells that filled the air or the feeling of the heat and humidity against one’s skin. They couldn’t capture the acrid taste of dust and dryness on your tongue. And unless they walked around with cameras to the ground, they didn’t show the worn and torn, hardened feet of the Haitians walking the hole-covered, debris laden roads. Broken glass, sharp rocks, and all manner of trash sift under their often-bare feet. Even before the quake, the major mode of transportation for most Haitians was their feet, as many people cannot afford automobiles or taxi fares.

Having been to Haiti before and knowing what the conditions were like, I watched the pictures of the devastation on TV and was struck with an idea. I emailed our company CEO, Rick Kanter, and President, Eric Lorenz, and asked if we could send shoes. Everyone can give out of the resources they have, be it money or medical equipment or skills. At Dr. Comfort, we have shoes!

Jay Tew, CP, lead prosthetist at the Hanger Clinic in Haiti, entertains four-year-old amputee Schneily Similien.

Thrilled with the proposal, Rick instructed me to put together a team of people to travel to Haiti and authorized the donation of $1,000,000 worth of the company’s diabetic shoes. Working out the details of the shipment and dealing with the Haitian customs department was as much of a challenge as the trip itself. With little to no government regulation or infrastructure in place, getting goods into the country and then on to their final destination is often very difficult and can sometimes take months. It was decided that though Dr. Comfort had donated shoes to more than seven different organizations, our team of volunteers would travel to Milot, Haiti, to a hospital called Crudem.

Once we were in Haiti, we were hit with the humidity, and then the distinct smells, and ultimately, very long days. It rained every night, and we woke up to the sound of roosters and the sun blasting its heat into the windows every morning. The humidity was so high that if you leaned against the walls, the paint would rub off onto your clothes.

One of the very first patients we saw after our arrival at the hospital was a young girl with a serious spinal injury—an injury so severe that she will never walk again. The nurses, however, really wanted her to have some shoes. We began digging through our boxes to quickly locate a pair for her before she was airlifted to another facility the next day. She was so grateful to receive her shoes, even though she knew she’d never walk in them.  We watched her being lifted into the helicopter the next day, and she was carrying those shoes on her lap and smiling as she left.

The people of Haiti are accustomed to extreme poverty, knowing they have to fight for whatever resources they get. When resources become available, word travels quickly.  The shoes made us very popular. We could not walk in the street without people calling out to us, ‘Hey, Dr. Comfort!’

Retired Maj. Ed Fort, another member of the Dr. Comfort team, had experienced many instances and places of destruction and devastation while in the military. But the scene in Haiti was unlike anything he’d ever seen.

A young Haitian amputee proudly shows off his new shoes. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Comfort.)

It was always uncomfortable. The noise was constant and food was scarce. Even volunteers ate little more than rice at every meal. There was an air of desperation and distress as everyone feared having to go without. Add the medical urgency, and each day was just a constant blur. We got up in the morning and simply handled one issue after another, one patient after another, until bedtime. Rarely were we able to complete a sentence without an interruption by someone needing, planning, asking or selling something. This made for exhausting days.

The Crudem hospital was composed of the main surgical building and five recovery tents that housed 275 patients with serious limb, head, and bodily injuries from the crushing effects of the earthquake. They were men, women, and children amputees, some wearing braces or surgical or orthopedic traction devices that limited their mobility. Traditionally, most Haitian hospitals do not provide meals to patients; it is the family’s responsibility to do so. Though Crudem actually did provide meals, family members were used to having to stay with patients, so there were many extra people in the tents. Many of them were homeless and had nowhere else to go anyway. Tents were lined with beds, with surviving family members crowded next to the beds in the gravel on cots, mats, or any available space.

When the shoes were shipped from Dr. Comfort, they weren’t sorted according to size, style, or width. So once we arrived, we had to take out every shoe and write on the bottom its size and width. We then separated these shoes into different groups, by size, to make dispensing easier. We measured each patient’s foot, found an appropriate pair of shoes, and wrote the patient’s tent and bed numbers on the bottom. Then we took them their shoes and made sure they fit properly. Because there were so many shoes donated, we had an ample supply and could also give shoes to patients’ family members,  volunteer workers, laborers, and other needy people.

Despite the gravity of the situation and the uncertain future these patients were facing, there were still moments of joy and laughter. Many of the patients at Crudem were amputees awaiting donated prosthetic devices. One of these patients was a 16 year old boy who had lost not only both of his legs, but also his entire family and all of his possessions. We gave him a pair of shoes to wear when he received his new feet. Afterward, we found him riding around in his wheelchair, smiling and proudly showing off his new shoes, by wearing them and waving them on his residual limbs. What an impact this made on us!  This boy had lost everything, and yet he was able to laugh and joke with us and find joy in something so simple as a new pair of shoes he couldn’t yet put on his feet.

The Dr. Comfort team titled our mission “Steps For Hope.” The shoes we supplied will physically offer protection and support, but we feel that the shoes also offer hope. Hope that the patients will walk again, hope that people across the globe care for them, hope that they will have a chance at rebuilding their lives.

Todd Carter is director of pharmacy sales for Dr. Comfort

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